When it comes to movies based on true stories, it is always fascinating to see unbelievable events transpire in a real-life setting. While most schlocky horror movies these days claim to be extracted from reality, it is the crime genre that really succeeds in grabbing and holding my attention. In “The Iceman,” Israeli director Ariel Vromen (“Rx”) tells the incredible true story of Richard Kuklinski, the Polish Mafia hitman who killed over 100 people by the time he was apprehended in 1986. The Academy Award-nominated Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road,” “Take Shelter”) cometh as the cold-blooded murderer (hence the nickname) with an intensity that made me realize that he is truly an underrated actor. Set in a time period between 1964 and 1986, the movie follows Kuklinski through his marriage and recruitment by the mob. Vromen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Morgan Land, does a fine job with a film that is chock full of familiar actors, A-list or otherwise. Still, you may be yearning for some more substance in this newest installment to the crime genre.
The movie’s opening scene helps introduce Kuklinski as somewhat of a paradox. We find him sitting in a restaurant with his future wife, Deborah, played by Winona Ryder, who still seems as innocent and charming as ever. Kuklinski compares her to a prettier version of Natalie Wood. When prompted on what he does for a living, he claims to dub cartoons for Disney (“Cinderella” is his favorite). In reality, he makes a decent living creating pornographic films in a sketchy New Jersey lab. Like a real gentleman, he bids Deborah goodnight and then kills a man who rubs him the wrong way in a pool hall.
Throughout the movie, Vromen allows his leading man’s talents to shine. Shannon, who will portray General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot “Man of Steel” (out June 14), plays Kuklinski like a hulking automaton with a slight limp, speaking in low monotones. The 6-foot-3-inch actor, truly menacing in the role, flawlessly encompasses the character, switching between tranquility and bouts of anger and violence. It is a marvelous thing when we adore and fear a character at the same time. More importantly, Shannon perfectly emulates a conscienceless killer. In the words of Ian Holm’s Ash from 1979’s “Alien,” Kuklinski is “a survivor unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.” Unfortunately, the film fails to get truly inside this man’s deranged head, deciding instead to conduct its business on a playing field of pseudosanity. Shannon’s performance is reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector in 1991’s “The Silence of The Lambs,” a storm of murderous rampage just waiting to break free at any minute. Nevertheless, he still retains some shred of humanity through his personal code of refusing to murder women and children.
Richard and Deborah get hitched and have two daughters. All he really cares about is his family, acting on instincts like an animal, mindlessly killing and protecting his younglings; he is an antihero of the highest caliber. Kuklinski is soon employed as a hitman by mafioso Roy DeMeo, played by Ray Liotta in a predictable yet comfortable role reminiscent of “Goodfellas.-”. At this point, the filmmakers may have wanted to change the title to “101 Ways to Kill a Human Being,” as Kuklinski carries out hit after hit- — stabbing, strangling and shooting. His name is no longer Richard; it’s “Pollack.” One sequence features a cameo from James Franco, who seems to have a part in every movie these days, pleading with Kuklinski — and God — for his life.
The juxtaposition between his family and crime lives is fascinating to watch, especially because Kuklinski works so hard to keep them separate. The scenes where he snaps are the best, especially those involving his family. In one instance he tears up his house while fighting his wife, and in another he drives like a crazed maniac, putting his daughters in danger.
Among DeMeo’s posse is the pathetic Jewish wannabe mobster, Josh Rosenthal, played by none other than David Schwimmer with a ponytail and 1970s porn star mustache. He messes up just one too many times, causing Kuklinski to come into cahoots with Robert Pronge, another contract killer who rides around in the perfect cover in the form of an ice cream truck. Chris Evans (“Captain America”) takes a break from playing heartthrobs and superheroes to embody a ruthless gun for hire. Pronge is an intriguing mixture of disheveled, sleazy and brains. Like no big deal, he keeps frozen bodies in his truck while serving ice cream to young children and cuts up corpses as if it were a recreational activity.
The movie is set against the backdrop of a 1970s New Jersey and New York, similar to that of Ridley Scott’s 2007 “American Gangster.” While “The Iceman” accomplishes the look of the times (clothing, hairdos, televisions, etc.), it lacks the grittiness and realism of ‘70s-era crime movies like William Friedkin’s 1975 “The French Connection.” Moreover, we see no investigations into all the murders, with cops only showing up at the end. While this film just feels a bit too artificial, its dark tone helps make up for what it lacks. It is not a pure crime story, but a character study of a man who lives in two conflicting worlds. Unlike other movies set in the disco era, music doesn’t play a major part, but the songs that are used are used perfectly, like Electric Light Orchestra’s “Livin’ Thing,” which ironically preaches that a life is a terrible thing to lose.
Even before seeing this film, Shannon proved his worth as a maniac to me thanks to his intense narration of the now infamous angry sorority email for Funny or Die. Although it won’t become an instant classic anytime soon, Shannon’s performance makes it worth sitting through the almost two-hour runtime. I wouldn’t go so far as to call “The Iceman” the “Citizen Kane” of crime movies, but it has spunk, something a lot of movies could really use nowadays. The final verdict: Don’t turn a cold shoulder to “The Iceman.”